"Micromanagement" is a dirty word in today's workplaces. Bosses who intervene too often or too extensively in their subordinates' activities get a bad reputation, and most forward-thinking organisations have come to value employee autonomy more than oversight. Research shows that people have strong negative emotional and physiological reactions to unnecessary or unwanted help and that it can erode interpersonal relationships. Even the US Army General George S. Patton understood the danger of micromanaging: He famously said, "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."
Managers shouldn't be completely laissez-faire, however, especially when subordinates aren't co-located, as is the case for many during the global Covid-19 pandemic. People doing complex work often need more than just superficial advice or encouragement; they need assistance that is both well-timed and appropriate to their issues — and providing it can be challenging without opportunities for serendipitous encounters in a physical office. Extensive research indicates that pervasive helping in an organization correlates with better performance than letting employees go it alone does. So how can you give subordinates the assistance they need without undermining their sense of independence?
Over the past 10 years we've been studying how leaders effectively offer help without being perceived as micromanagers. We have observed and talked to people inside various companies, conducted a large-scale qualitative study and run two behavioral experiments, exploring how 124 groups responded to differently timed interventions. Together those projects have yielded important insights into how managers can better assist their employees. As a starting point, your employees need to know that you're willing to offer help — and they must feel comfortable asking for it. Additionally, you need to have a baseline understanding of their work and its challenges, as well as time and energy to give.
But just how and when should you roll up your sleeves to get involved in employees' work? We've uncovered three key strategies: Time your help so it comes when people are ready for it; clarify that your role is to be a helper; and align the rhythm of your involvement — its intensity and frequency — with people's specific needs.
Time your help wisely
When involving yourself in your employees' work, timing matters, but not in the way you might expect. Conventional wisdom suggests that heading off potential issues is the best strategy. We've found, however, that the leaders who are viewed as the most helpful don't try to preempt every problem as soon as they recognise one. Instead they watch and listen until they believe their subordinates see the need for help. They understand that people are more willing to welcome assistance when they're already engaged in a task or a project and have experienced its challenges firsthand.
Our experimental research — studying those 124 groups making entrepreneurial decisions — confirmed the importance of lending a hand at the right time. We found that when advice was given in the course of teams' work, after problems had emerged rather than beforehand, members understood and valued it more. This led them to actually use the help and make objectively better decisions than did groups that received more instruction at the start of their discussions.
Clarify that your role is to help
Even if the timing is right, intervening can go wrong when it isn't clear why you are getting involved. Managers play a lot of different roles, and their responsibilities include evaluating employees and doling out rewards and punishments. This power dynamic can get in the way of effective help. When bosses step in, their involvement can imply that people are messing up. That's why employees often hide or downplay issues and fail to solicit guidance.
Because seeking and receiving help can make people feel so vulnerable, managers need to clarify their roles when intervening in employees' work. They should explain that they are there to help, not to judge or take over. Across our research, we found that when managers clarified their intentions, employees were more candid about the problems they faced and more willing to accept help and work collaboratively to solve them. Don't assume that employees can accurately discern your intentions. No matter how supportive you are as a boss, they won't forget that part of your job is to monitor and assess them.
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Align the rhythm of your involvement to people's needs
To give people useful help, leaders must take the time to fully understand employees' problems. If the work is complex, creative and cognitively demanding, you'll need to engage deeply. But that means more than delivering help with the right content. It also means allocating time and attention in a pattern that works for receivers. We call this the rhythm of involvement, and it will vary depending on whether employees need intensive guidance in the short term or intermittent path clearing over a prolonged period.
Concentrated guidance is required when employees encounter hurdles that can't be overcome with quick feedback. In such scenarios, leaders collaborate closely with subordinates in long sessions tightly clustered over a few days. That might sound like the definition of micromanaging. Indeed, bosses in our studies who assisted in this way without ensuring that their people were ready for it and without clarifying their helper roles were perceived as taking over. But when managers instead began with the other strategies we've described, this kind of time-intensive deep help was welcomed.
In the second form of help, path clearing, leaders offer assistance in briefer, intermittent intervals when employees face ongoing problems. For instance, if your team is short-staffed, you might stop by every few days for a half-hour or so, to help with whatever needs doing — whether it's participating in an important client call or simply ordering lunch. Path clearers maintain enough general knowledge about the project to understand emerging needs but seldom dig into the core work. Rather, they look for smaller ways to give relief to their subordinates.
Leaders can help their employees in hands-on and meaningful ways — without being accused of micromanaging — if they pay careful attention to timing, articulate their helping role up front and match the rhythm of their assistance to receivers' needs. These guidelines are especially important during the ongoing pandemic. When workers aren't co-located, managers are more likely to either check in too frequently or fall out of touch and leave employees adrift. Thus being a hands-on manager in such situations is critical; it not only improves employees' performance but also lets people feel supported and connected.
Written by: Colin M. Fisher, Teresa M. Amabile and Julianna Pillemer
© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group